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Gig review: Laura Cantrell at Gateshead Old Town Hall

May 11, 2011 Comments: 0
Photo: Martin Sharman

If there’s one thing that most musicians would do unspeakable things for, it’s a one-line, nailed-on recommendation from an impeccable critical source.  Laura Cantrell achieved this exalted status when no less an authority than the late John Peel decided that Cantrell’s debut album Not The Tremblin’ Kind was possibly the finest album he’d heard in his life: in one statement raising the bar for the rest of her career almost impossibly high.  Ten years on, Cantrell has released an album celebrating the work of Kitty Wells, a hugely successful country star until the late 1960s.  Would the Gateshead crowd agree that it deserves equivalent posthumous Peel praise?
A keen eye could deduce from the all-seated audience in the picturesque Old Town Hall that this gig will be a subdued affair, and so it proves.  Instrumentation is sparse; with only acoustic guitar and mandolin for company, both the songs and voice need to do a lot of work to generate a sense of excitement, a task for which they are both underprepared.  This isn’t a gig for boogieing on down, it’s one for nodding along, analysing the cautionary tales of travel, love and loss, and appreciating the sentiment on offer. As safe as a mug of Ovaltine, in other words, and just about as intoxicating.
Each song is a midtempo affair built around a few root chords; after a few verses the guitar and mandolin share a solo, and it’s onto the next one. The narratives on offer are finely crafted, but where are the hooks?  No clever wordplay, no knockout melodies, just plain old storytelling with a tune.
To be fair, the audience loved it. The good-sized hall was pretty much a sell-out, each song receiving polite but enthusiastic applause, and there were even a few toes tapping in the rare event a song made a break for a higher tempo. There's nothing inexplicable in Cantrell's popularity: this is safe, family stuff to bring your Hank Williams-loving granny to. But there's a discomforting feeling of being left somewhat short-changed: music can make you feel so much more than this. 
There were a couple of standout tracks however: Kitty Wells’ “I Don’t Claim To Be An Angel”, about the power of love to reform one’s former moral misdemeanours, and the enthralling “Caught In A Net”, featuring a sequence of misfit characters who are all expertly drawn, the latter’s genesis courtesy of the fascinating Radio Free Song Club project.
A good time was had by all, but with the abundance of fascinating, eccentric, flawed characters that Americana has to offer, Laura Cantrell simply comes across as staid and mainstream in comparison; the original Kitty Wells recordings are so full of pathos and period detail it seems futile to even attempt to recreate them.  Sad to say, but even the great JP got it wrong occasionally.
Martin Sharman

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